Hanukkah

From the LA Times

latimeshanukkahAs a child in Hebrew school, I was taught the story of the Hanukkah miracle: When the Jews in the land of Israel defeated the foreigners, the priests seeking to rekindle the temple's eternal light found enough ritually pure oil for only one day. Miraculously that oil lasted for eight days.

Since then, Jews have been celebrating Hanukkah every year by lighting candles every day for eight days. Children in Israel play with dreidels inscribed with the first Hebrew letters of the phrase "a big miracle happened here"; in Washington, D.C., my birthplace, our dreidels had the first letters of "a big miracle happened there."

Until I lived in Israel, I associated the holiday with latkes, or potato pancakes. But when I moved there I discovered that for many Israelis, sufganiyot, or jelly doughnuts, are the favorite Hanukkah treat. I also realized that the connection of such foods to Hanukkah is the oil in which they are fried.

What we hadn't learned in Hebrew school was that the oil of the Hanukkah miracle was olive oil. In ancient Israel, olive oil was used for lighting lamps, for religious rituals and for cooking. Based on archaeological evidence, the land of Israel was an olive oil production center.

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leahThe Hanukkah crown, to be worn by the person most representing the spirit of the holiday, this year would have to go to Leah Adler, the proprietor of the Milky Way, famous for being the best upscale kosher restaurant in Beverly Hills, and because it’s owner, Leah Adler, also happens to be Steven Spielberg’s mom.

Opened over 30 years ago, the Milky Way is in its second location, neatly tucked away in the Jewish strip of Pico Blvd., and is charming and inviting from the get go. The dining room is fitted with comfy red leather booths, the tables are set with white tablecloths and oversized well-framed posters of her son’s movies hang everywhere. Looking up from a yummy cheese blintz one can see a picture of ET riding in the bicycle basket or Liam Neeson as Oskar Schindler. Even without several dozen family photos crammed on top of the bar, (in this case many with smiling celebrities and politicians) the place would feel like you were visiting your favorite Jewish aunt’s house for dinner.

One is awed by the life force of Leah Adler. She stands no more than five feet tall, if that, and at ninety-three is as alert as her radiant eyes are blue. She has worn her hair shorter than Mia Farrow’s ever was, forever. Short and still buttercup yellow, it frames the face of this beautiful leprechaun. Beaming her eyes directly into yours, she welcomes one to her restaurant the way she has for years, stopping at every booth to bestow a smile, she flashes her headlights and greets her guests.

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homecoming-picture-1.jpgMy husband is on active duty in the US Army, and for our first holiday season together we were living in a little town called Sierra Vista, Arizona, which is adjacent to Fort Huachuca, where he was stationed.  Since we had only been married since the previous January and we were just starting our life together, we couldn’t afford to go home to our beloved California and our families for the holidays, so we were toughing it out in Sierra Vista alone. 

Being Jewish, no holiday season was complete for me without my mom’s fabulous potato latkes, and by Christmas Day (which also happened to be the last night of Hanukkah), I was feeling pretty down at the prospect of the holiday season passing without them.  My husband, wanting to make me happy, suggested that we make them for Christmas dinner.  Since he is Christian and had never had potato latkes before, I thought this would be a wonderful way to introduce him to a delicious new food and also to merge our holiday customs and traditions together, setting a precedent for the years of holidays to come.  I enthusiastically agreed.

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herod lamp"Latkes are a kind of oil, into which small quantities of shredded potato have been infused." -- Jonathan Safran Foer


Latkes, also known as potato pancakes, are a traditional treat to eat at least once during the eight days of Hanukkah. The reason you eat latkes for Hanukkah is because they are fried in oil. Why oil? Hanukkah celebrates the re-dedication of the second temple after a battle and along with the victory came the miracle in which mere drops of oil in an oil lamp lasted eight days. The "miracle" is much like a story about a fat man coming down a chimney with presents...

A real miracle would be to have perfectly crispy and not-so-greasy latkes. For years there has been a debate in my family. My mom and I spoke up in defense of shredding potatoes for latkes, and my papa insisted that grating lead to much crispier ones. It's all in the technique, as most recipes call for the same ingredients--eggs, flour or matzah meal, onions and potatoes. Last year I had some of the crispiest latkes ever and guess what? Papa was right. Grating does make them crispier. That and frying them in the just right amount of oil at just the right temperature of course.

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Olive Oil Bundt CakeI'm wishing a Happy Hanukkah to all of our Jewish friends. Since Hanukkah celebrates the miracle of the oil that burned for eight days the Jewish people celebrate with foods that include oil.

Fried foods like potato pancakes (“latkas” in Yiddish) and doughnuts (“sufganiyot” in Hebrew) are traditional Hanukkah treats because they are cooked in oil and remind the Jewish people of the miracle of the holiday. So why not an olive oil cake!! Instead of butter, oil is used to create this beautiful dessert. And best of all, no mixer is required. We also have some other great Hanukkah recipes for you to enjoy.

And the tangerine glaze…wow. I have a whole bowl of Satsumas on the counter, and they are as juicy as can be. Perfect to squeeze and bake into this cake and glaze.

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